California Leads: From Top Exporter to Leading Reducer of Plastic Pollution

California is now leading the US in tackling plastic pollution as well as adopting and building systems to help the state move towards a zero-waste, reusable future. On October 5, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed several historic pieces of legislation into law whose far-reaching benefits include

  • Limiting the production and sale of single-use plastics.
  • Removing the circular arrow label from the types of single-use plastics that cannot actually be recycled.
  • Modernizing California’s recycling infrastructure to create a more circular economy while requiring strict tracking of recyclable plastic and not allowing plastic exports to other countries to be counted as recycled.
  • Ensuring that products labeled as compostable are able to break down organically to prevent non-compostable toxic materials from entering the compost stream.
  • Simplifying and making it easier for bottle and beverage manufacturers to create and utilize reusable glass bottle systems for their products. 

The Governor’s climate leadership also includes phasing out oil production, preventing new oil drilling near communities, and establishing science-based 3,200-foot setbacks for oil and gas operations.

With a focus on upstream source reduction of plastic pollution, the following two bills are particularly noteworthy: 

  • AB 962 by Senator Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) – California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act: reusable beverage containers.
Image courtesy Surfrider Foundation.
  • AB 1276 by Assembly member Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) – Single-use foodware accessories and standard condiments.
Image courtesy Surfrider Foundation.

AB 1276 (Carillo) was sponsored by the Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition, which is made up of 11 non-profit organizations and their members throughout California dedicated to plastic pollution solutions, specifically with an emphasis on source reduction. The Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition co-sponsored AB 962 (Kamlager) with Californians Against Waste.

These newly minted laws come just a year after a survey conducted by The Last Beach Cleanup revealed California to be the nation’s leader in plastic waste and exports.

“Our reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in more kids getting asthma, more children born with birth defects, and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals. California is taking a significant step to protect the more than two million residents who live within a half-mile of oil drilling sites, many in low-income and communities of color,” said Governor Newsom. “We are committed to protecting public health, the economy, and our environment as we transition to a greener future that reckons with the realities of the climate crisis we’re all facing.”

Image courtesy of The Last Beach Cleanup.

As public demand from California consumers has grown to limit the state’s consumption of single-use plastic products, state legislators and Governor Newsom have worked tirelessly to turn California from the nation’s top plastic exporter to its leader in the reduction of plastic waste.

Many of the plastic pollution prevention laws adopted by Governor Newsom have also been proposed in the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, proposed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA). This piece of federal legislation represents the most pragmatic and comprehensive set of policy solutions to the plastic pollution crisis ever introduced in Congress. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, California is in a unique position to pave the way for larger, more comprehensive circular economic policies to be adopted at the federal level. Sign on to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act here.

“Plastic pollutes at every stage of its existence and is a major contributor to our climate crisis. Thank you Governor Gavin Newsom for your leadership in signing a sweep of important climate and toxic plastic/chemical bills. These measures will not only help stem the tide of plastic, they will help us reach our climate goals. We’ve been saying #CAMustLead, but now we can say #CALeads by taking measures to reverse its role as the top plastic waste exporter in the United States, which ranks as one of the largest plastic waste exporters globally.” – Jackie Nuñez, Founder, The Last Plastic Straw & Advocacy Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition


”We made real progress this year defining what is recyclable, compostable, stopping exporting plastics and calling it recycling when it’s causing environmental injustice around the world, and that it is not “circular” to keep toxic chemicals in motion to injure more people!” – Heidi Sanborn, Executive Director, National Stewardship Action Council

“Beyond recycling, California must lead on transitioning to a reuse economy — we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic crisis. The Circular Economy package levels the playing field for businesses to roll-out reusable glass bottles as an alternative to throw-away plastic bottles, it also gives consumers the choice to buy their takeout without an unwanted side of plastic forks or spoons.”- Amy Gilson, Policy Manager at Californians Against Waste 

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To Stop Plastic Pollution